SDF: What the Frack?

Editor’s Note: To mark the new year REALscience is rolling out a new feature — Science Ditty Friday. Each and every Friday we’ll compile a song (preferably with accompanying video) to kick your weekend off with a musical start. And there will be a more detailed explanation of the science in the lyrics to boot. Have a favorite science song? Send it to

The official hydraulic fracturing song and video is so catchy and fun because it sounds like swearing. At least that’s why Time magazine deigned it number 2 in the Top 10 Creative Videos of 2011. Based on the three-year investigation by ProPublica into concerns about chemical pollution in the water supply near fracking drill sites, the song focuses on methane being released into the groundwater where drilling is happening.

But what’s the real science behind the accusatory lyrics, which leave the listener wondering if this new, cheap way of extracting natural gas is actually contributing to the global warming problem?

Oil and gas companies see it as a cleaner, more environmentally responsible energy alternative.

Hydraulic Fracturing in Shale

Hydraulic Fracturing in Shale

But a Cornell study last year found something different. It says that the methane in natural gas extracted by hydrofracking in shale makes it a potent climate changer. The study and others since then argue that methane leaks unburned into the air during extraction and processing prior to burning. And methane is considerably far more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2.

Methane has an atmospheric life of 20 years compared to carbon dioxide’s 100. But methane can cause other problems.

Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeler from NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies says, “There are indirect effects from methane emissions because it is chemically reactive in the atmosphere. It contributes to increases in tropospheric ozone and stratospheric water vapor (increasing the warming impact), and by changing the oxidizing capacity of the atmosphere, affects it’s own lifetime, and that of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrous oxide (NOx) – which in turn affects aerosol formation, and indeed aerosol-cloud interactions.”

After a Duke University study found hydrofracking was polluting water to the extent that some kitchen taps could be set on fire, the water contamination issue began to boil.

Just recently, the Environmental Protection Agency has begun trucking water to homes in a town in Pennsylvania as a precaution.

Robert Jackson, who was part of the Duke Study says, “We certainly didn’t expect to see such a strong relationship between the concentration of methane in water and the nearest gas wells. That was a real surprise.”

The research found that water supplies within six-tenths of a mile of a hydraulic fracturing operation had on average 17 times more methane in the drinking water than wells further away from drilling sites.

Homeowner Lights Methane Contaminated Tap Water on Fire

Homeowner Lights Methane Contaminated Tap Water on Fire

In mid-January the U.S. EPA informed New York officials that the state needed better safeguards to protect water supplies near hyrdofracking sites.

To free the gas trapped in the underground shale formations, drillers pump millions of gallons of water mixed with sand and chemicals deep underground under enough pressure to fracture rock. The wastewater left over from the process has a way of getting into drinking water by being disposed of at sewage treatment plants.

In 2004, the EPA found that hydrofracking posed no risk to drinking water. Then Congress exempted the process, created by Halliburton in the 1990s, from the Safe Drinking Water Act. As a result of those moves, hydrofracking is now the common gas extraction method in nine out of every ten natural gas wells in the U.S. And there are almost 500,000 shale gas wells in the U.S., twice as many as there were in 1990.

In 2010 the EPA and other federal health officials, cautioned some Wyoming residents not to drink their water and to ventilate their homes when they bathed because the methane in the water could cause an explosion. In December, the EPA made the link between fracking and water contamination for the first time.

My Water’s on Fire Tonight

by David Holmes

Fracking is a form of natural gas drilling
An alternative to oil cause the oil kept spilling
Bringing jobs to small towns so everybody’s willing
People turn on their lights and the drillers make a killing

Water goes into the pipe, the pipe into the ground
The pressure creates fissures 7,000 feet down
The cracks release the gas that powers your town
That well is fracked….. Yeah totally fracked

But there’s more in the water than just H2O
Toxic chemicals help to make the fluid flow
With names like benzene and formaldehyde
You better keep ‘em far away from the water supply

The drillers say the fissures are a mile below
The groundwater pumped into American homes
But don’t tell it to the residents of Sublette Wy-O
That water’s fracked…. We’re talking Benzene…

What the frack is going on with all this fracking going on
I think we need some facts to come to light
I know we want our energy but nothing ever comes for free
I think my water’s on fire tonight

So it all goes back to 2005
Bush said gas drillers didn’t have to comply
with the Safe Drinking Water Act, before too long
It was “frack, baby, frack” until the break of dawn.

With the EPA out it was up to the states
But they didn’t have the money to investigate
Sick people couldn’t prove fracking was to blame
All the while water wells were going up in flames

Cause it’s hard to contain all the methane released
It can get into the air, it can get into the streams.
It’s a greenhouse gas, worse than CO2
Fracking done wrong could lead to climate change too

Now it’s not that drillers should never be fracking
But the current regulation is severely lacking
Reduce the toxins, contain the gas and wastewater
And the people won’t get sick and the planet won’t get hotter

What the frack is going on with all this fracking going on
I think we need some facts to come to light
I know we want our energy but nothing ever comes for free
I think my water’s on fire tonight

Music by David Holmes and Andrew Bean
Vocals by David Holmes and Niel Bekker
Animation by Adam Sakellarides and Lisa Rucker
Created by the Studio 20 journalism project at NYU.

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